Leave it all on the mat. That’s what wrestling coaches say. Well, one day, I tried my best not to do just that.
Eons ago, I was a high school wrestler. Let me rephrase that. Eons ago, I wasn’t a very good high school wrestler, especially when compared to some of my older brothers. They were some of the best wrestlers in the state in their weight classes, and one was talented and dedicated enough to become a collegiate national champion. Me? I was merely an average wrestler, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t collect some special memories from this terrifically challenging and, without exception, for me, the most humbling of sports. (I’ve never boxed competitively.)
To be a successful wrestler, you must have great passion for the sport or be a genetic freak of nature, combined with a screw loose. It is a sport requiring tremendous skill balanced with strength, stamina, and most importantly, a brand of toughness few possess. I only maintained one of those prerequisites. Clinging to that loose screw, I was pressured into wrestling. I didn’t like the sport. I respected it, but unlike baseball and football, I didn’t have the necessary passion or work ethic required to excel. Strangely, I wasn’t pressured by my brothers or father. My father wanted all of us to play basketball, and my brothers knew baseball was my game of interest. So, I guess, along with a handful of coaches, I placed unsolicited pressure on myself. Lesson number one: In wrestling, that usually doesn’t work out positively.
Making the varsity team as a freshman can be considered an admirable achievement for a wrestler since you are competing with seniors. So, wrestling varsity at 129 pounds should have provided me a sense of accomplishment. Sadly, I didn’t earn that spot until later that year. Before the first match, our head coach gave that spot to me only because of my last name. It was a B.S. move on his part and would come back to haunt the both of us. Lesson number two: Everything in wrestling must be earned.
The night before the first match, after practice, I weighed 130 pounds meaning I would have to lose a pound and keep it off before the 9:00 a.m. weigh in the following morning. Therefore, eating anything that night was simply out of the question. (Losing weight properly does not include starving one’s self, but I was young, stupid, and our coach didn’t care how we lost it.)
Deciding to stay at my best friend Jeremy’s house the night before the match, I was also invited for dinner which I respectfully declined under the circumstances. This was a basketball family I was staying with, and Jeremy’s mother, who shall remain nameless, was stunned to hear I couldn’t eat the night before a match. Where would I get the strength to wrestle? After unsuccessfully explaining the situation to this wonderful woman, who had treated me as one of her own since Jeremy and I became friends around age ten, she came up with a terrific solution. Evidently, she had a magic potion which you could drink, or take as a pill, allowing you to eat whatever you wanted to, and the weight would be gone only eight hours after consumption. Hungry as an orangutan in a banana factory, I didn’t ask questions. I trusted her, so it was “all you can eat” spaghetti and meatballs for me that night, and I took full advantage of the proposal.
Before hitting the fart sack, she gave me this magic pill and said in about six hours, the weight would start coming off of me well before the 9:00 weigh in. It was roughly 11:00 p.m. when I swallowed it down, and exactly 5:00 a.m. when I first felt my stomach move and then speak in an unfamiliar baritone voice. It was about to speak volumes. Literally, volumes. Jeremy’s mother failed to read me the warning label: Will cause exploding diarrhea. Not “may” cause. “Will” Cause.
Making it to the bathroom in time, I think I did lose a pound or two, but felt a little uneasy about the slight panic I had before locking the door behind me. I was hoping that would be the last of it. It wasn’t. Two more trips to the latrine before leaving their house to catch the bus for our road trip match still wasn’t settling my stomach or my nerves. School buses don’t have bathrooms, and I don’t think depends had been invented yet, so I had to depend on my reliable backup: prayer.
Usually a pretty jovial person, I didn’t utter a word on the thirty minute bus ride. I was concentrating more on my bowels than any test I’d ever taken in school. My eyes squinted, and the left side of my mouth tilted as if I had just come off the most nauseating of roller coasters only to be forced to get right back on it. Some fellow wrestlers kept asking me what was wrong, and it was all I could do to just shrug my shoulders in fear. Moving further than that wasn’t an option. One of the guys told me not to worry. “You’re wrestling a senior, and he is a returning state veteran so no one expects you to win. If you do win, you’re a stallion. If he beats the crap out of you, no big deal.”
“Crap?” Don’t say the word “crap”. I just wanted the bus to stop, someone to take me into the locker room on a Hannibal Lecter hand truck and leave me alone for about a week.
Butt cheeks puckering like they’d just taken their first tequila and lime shot, my prayers were partially answered. I made it to the bathroom, but not before the janitor did. At that point, upon release, I felt the aftershocks may be over. I had hoped I left the last of this unnatural disaster in the toilet. There was a slight sense of relief while exiting the stall and walking sheepishly to the scale, quite sure I’d make weight and then move on with my life with respect and honor.
123 pounds! One pound above the weight class below me. You’ve got to be @#$tting me. I was cleared to wrestle. Convinced my odd disposition was just a case of freshman nerves, no one properly knew the trouble I’d experienced that morning. As a freshman, I felt it wise not to disclose any information which could ignite hazing I did not need.
“Wrestling at one hundred and twenty nine pounds, from West Valley, freshman, Ben Gannon.”
Wrestling is nerve wracking enough as it is. Add some volcanic intestines and a spotlight hanging over the mat while a hundred or so people stare at two boys in singlets roll around the mat in a skillful melee. (Singlets are the tight fitting required costumes wrestlers wear displaying every bulge, mogul, nook and cranny of the male physique.) Family, friends, enemies and neighbors are about to witness a match thinking I must be nervous, because they are suffering from anxiety as well. They have no idea.
Fortunately, after my last rendezvous with the John, I actually felt pretty decent, so when I trotted onto the mat to shake hands with my formidable opponent, for the first time, I became focussed on the match itself, and what I had to do to win. Not knowing how long I could last, I figured I would have to find a way to pin him quickly. So, when the whistle blew to begin the match, I think I surprised everyone in the stands and my opponent by taking him down within the first ten seconds giving me a lightning fast two point advantage. My advantage didn’t last long as my opponent, rather angrily, reversed me to tie up the score. Still, since I proved I was capable of scoring, I felt I could win. At that very same moment, quite aggressively, my opponent, eerily discerning I had an achilles abdomen, reached around my stomach using what is referred to as a “tight waist”. Imagine a cowboy cinching a saddle on a horse so the horse can’t free itself from the saddle. Instead of a rope, an arm and hand surround your belly and twist counter clockwise while squeezing to secure the opponent properly.
At first it was just every ounce of toxic gas being forced from my body, and I swear, my opponent stopped, as did I, wondering what may be showing up to the party next. I was frozen with fear and held my post when he decided to do it once more. Thankfully, those singlets are water tight, and everything left in my body was now splashing around in my singlet. My opponent’s gasp came less than a second after mine, and I knew what my next move was. I had no choice but to roll over and let him pin me as quickly as possible so I could get the hell out of that gymnasium before any leakage followed. It had the makings of epic humiliation, and when I rolled over, I wanted to scream at the referee to slap his hand on the mat to finish this nightmare before it could possibly get worse. He did, and my opponent separated himself from me as if I was a scalding hot, repugnant cast iron skillet. I couldn’t blame him. While getting off the mat as quickly as possible hoping to avoid spillage, a teammate tossed me my sweats and I wrapped them around me heading to the locker room. The singlet met its demise in the garbage can and when I came out to join the team for the remainder of the match, no one said one word. It was the only genuine relief I’d felt the entire day, and much like my wrestling career, my suffering was over.
On the ride back on the bus, I did confide in a few of the wrestlers explaining what had happened. Although it provided a terrific laugh, it never left the bus. If they ever told anyone at school, I never was on the receiving end of nasty nicknames, so I felt very fortunate. My remaining high school years could have been littered with gastrointestinal jokes.
I finished the rest of the season wrestling varsity at 129 pounds, won some matches, and took some savage beatings, but I can’t really recall one match specifically besides mat classic ex-lax. I do know this. Still remaining very close to my friend and his family, when I return to my hometown to visit them, I will never put anything in my mouth while at their house that doesn’t come off my own fork.